Building wraps are the ultimate high-impact medium, but do they contribute to the health of a city?
If you live in Johannesburg, perhaps you’ve driven along the M1 at night and been awed at Johnnie Walker’s giant striding man, the size of 70 rugby fields, once wrapped around three sides of the Southern Life building. Or perhaps you are grateful that the giant board around a construction site in Sandton keeps dust from drifting into your office. Maybe you think the multi-storey ads visible along the highway are distracting to drivers.
Depending on your perspective, building wraps invigorate or clutter the city’s skylines. Media owners say there’s nothing like a wrap for high-impact and spectacular creative execution, and that the massive ads contribute to the city, aesthetically and financially. However, others feel that wraps are detrimental to the health of the lived environment.
In the latter camp is Flo Bird, chair of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, which develops research and runs architectural heritage tours. “I think these building wraps are vile and the vast majority are illegal,” says Bird. “They get dirty so quickly and no one cleans them and that’s very unpleasant.” She says wraps should only be employed to cover construction sites or buildings undergoing renovation.
“I have seen them done very attractively in Italy. They have very decorative and tasteful wraps. They might show a picture of what a building [under construction] will look like when it’s done. These aren’t so much advertising as there to protect people from the dust and the ugliness of building sites.”
Bird stresses how important it is for residents of any area to have a sense of ownership of their surroundings. Her foundation has found that efforts to preserve historical buildings are successful only when the local community feel involved. She implies that wraps are inimical to a feeling of community. For example, in otherwise lively areas like Braamfontein, there are whole apartment blocks standing empty. Bird says landlords have realised that they can make a more reliable income renting the building to advertisers than they can renting to tenants; plus they needn’t bother with the same level of maintenance.
The Jo’burg CBD and surrounds has a rich architectural heritage, says Bird. Many residents are aware only of the city’s Art Deco tradition, but there is so much more: the confident splendour of the Edwardian age; pompous, grand colonial buildings; and the modernism of the internationally recognised Transvaal Group of architects. While it is illegal to wrap heritage buildings 60 years and older, more recent architecture of historical significance is fair game. And sometimes the municipal bylaws are ignored and beautiful old buildings are swallowed up in advertising.
Bird also worries that the wraps constitute a fire hazard. “If there’s a fire, how are people supposed to get out of the building with those things covering the windows?” she says.
Wynand Mackenzie, director of ScaffTech, which installs building wraps, says that if the rules are followed, damage to building facades is minimal. Mackenzie says that while the vast majority of wraps require that holes are drilled into buildings, there is little risk of structural damage. The holes are no more than those caused by other installations, like cellphone masts, he says.
If drilling is not a feasible option, wraps might be installed on scaffolding next to the building. Or vinyl stickers can be applied to smooth surfaces. No building is the same and the solution has to be approached on its own terms, he says.
Mackenzie says wraps are actually beneficial. “Most wraps are like shade cloths. You can still see out from the inside. They let in 70% of the light. It brings down the temperature of the building, so you save on aircon, and it traps dust, saving on your cleaning bill.”
A huge wrap for Nivea completely covers the front of an office block in Randburg. It looks solid from the outside, but close up and from the inside, it’s visible as a fine mesh. On a hot Highveld afternoon, the offices inside are cool. Workers say they don’t notice the wrap and rather like that it keeps the sun out. One woman says, “This building is really ugly, so it’s good that this advert covers the front.”
Mackenzie says that unlike many other contractors, his company hires an engineer, who inspects the wrap after installation. “Also, we have been doing this for over 10 years now, so we have a very good idea of what works,” he says. ScaffTech designed and installed the wraps for all 10 of South Africa’s stadia before the 2010 World Cup. They are also involved in installing the world’s largest LED messaging screen, which has been placed on the top of the Absa Towers in the Jo’burg CBD.
Provantage media manager Skhumbuzo Nkosi says building wraps contribute to the city in many ways. Landlords of derelict buildings have used the income generated from the wraps to rehabilitate their properties, contributing to the current regeneration of the inner city. Wraps are often placed in abandoned areas near main arterial routes, for maximum visibility and impact, and improve the look and feel of the area.
“Brands are very situational in their creative execution, which adds to the effectiveness of the medium. For example, with some abandoned buildings, the agency has been clever and incorporated the shape of the building into the creative… This enhances the beauty of the city because it hides unsightly buildings,” says Nkosi.
As transit media specialists, Provantage creates building wraps and installations on spaces such as highway embankments.
Nkosi says the city council has a strict and expensive approvals process, which is prohibitive for all but the largest brands and keeps building wraps relatively rare. “Regulations are important because the value of the currency diminishes if it’s not protected. But there needs to be a more relaxed feel in allowing for advertising,” he says.
Proprietors like Provantage are required to submit block plans to council. There are many regulations that protect the buildings and the people in them, which may make creative execution challenging. For example, an ad may only cover a certain percentage of a façade. Residential buildings may not be wrapped (though The Media has seen several in the Jo’burg CBD that are). If people work in a wrapped building, the wrap may not block natural light.
These are all reasonable regulations, says Nkosi; the problem is the pricing structure. “The municipality charges us as media owners per square metre [of the wrap]. The approval fees are prohibitive and the cost has to be externalised to the client.”
Building wraps are a high-impact, high-wastage medium. Clients seldom take out a wrap in the long term, says Nkosi (though there are exceptions). “Wraps are usually for short- to medium-term campaigns. When a client buys a wrap they want to create an impactful message about the brand. It won’t really create reach, though there is a reach factor. It’s more a brand building format.
“It’s very seldom that you’ll find a client wanting to buy the wrap for six to 12 months. It will be for three months and it’s a quick in-and-out.”
Overly strict regulations also mean there is more bending of the rules, says Nkosi. “I think that some [media owners] push the boundaries as much as they can, because the expectations of council and what actually happens is misaligned and there are all these inconsistencies,” he says.
While building wraps can be impactful and even beautiful additions to the cityscape, plus valuable sources of revenue for many, they could potentially become visual pollution. Perhaps what is needed is more dialogue between heritage custodians, media owners and the city council to ensure that commercial and community interests are balanced.
This story was first published in the January 2014 issue of The Media magazine.